Reintegrating student’s back into school after an extended absence
Helping students in crisis is a reflex action for most educators. Knowing that a student has experienced a traumatic injury, illness, life event or mental health crisis is going to lead to a rallying cry where the school staff puts its best foot forward. Suddenly a flood gate of compassion is released and, with a focus often lost in the frenetic pace of school life, staff buckles down and comes up with plans to make life just a little bit easier for someone who’s having a hard time. That said, schools occasionally fail to fully welcome kids back after a crisis. In the end, fail-safe mechanisms need to be put in place to protect kids when they return to school after an extended absence.
Perhaps the best way to approach this topic is to provide a few examples that demonstrate an effective transition back to school for students who have been absent for an extended period of time.
Christine had been seriously injured in a fire. The injuries she sustained kept her out of school for most of her Grade 11 year. The principal worked with the family to make sure they knew that Christine’s health was the number one priority and that the school would do everything in their power to facilitate her return to school when the time came. Christine endured extensive and dramatic health intervention and was in the hospital for an extended period of time. Eventually, with her release on the horizon, the health team called the school team in for a meeting. By this point, the principal had handpicked a guidance counsellor for Christine, and brought the school social worker onto the case. A timeline was established and Christine was slated to return to school in September of her Grade 12 year.
The school team worked with a number of teachers to put together a plan for Christine. It involved a combination of independent learning courses and regular classroom courses that were part of a modified day. The guidance counsellor was the lead on the case for a variety of reasons: first, she was the person Christine trusted the most; second, she had a handle on how to help this student to complete enough course work to graduate; and, third, Christine’s experience in the fire had been extremely traumatic. The burns left her disfigured and she was having a very difficult time adapting to school life. The counsellor spent many hours with Christine during her Grade 12 year and, thanks to the sheer will of this student along with the support of a strong school team, she graduated that June and got into the university she wanted to attend. The counsellor even helped with the transition to post-secondary.
Christine’s re-entry plan worked because the team established her well-being as their priority and the guidance counsellor, as team leader, kept the lines of communication open with the student, the parents, the teachers and, when appropriate, the health care professionals working with the young lady. They took things one step at a time until they reached their goal of graduation and transition into university. Most importantly, Christine overcame tremendous adversity to make this plan work.
A tragic loss
Amrit knew his father wasn’t well but he never imagined that his situation was about to turn dire. His mother told him to meet her at the hospital after her father’s doctor told him to report to the local Emergency Room. The ER staff ran some preliminary tests that quickly evolved into more extensive tests which led to a diagnosis: lymph node cancer. The cancer was moving rapidely through Amrit’s father’s system, causing his vital organs to shut down. Over the course of four days, he had gone from feeling ill to being flat out in a hospital bed unable to walk or talk.
Amrit helped his mother come to terms with the situation. Unfortunately, there was a language barrier hindering the communication between the doctor and the family so Amrit had to play a primary role in translating information so that everyone fully understood what was going on. Amrit was in a position where he would have to bear the responsibility of a great deal of the caregiving for his ailing father.
Amrit made an appointment with his guidance counsellor and told him what was going on. The guidance counsellor listened attentively and let Amrit know that he was sorry for what the young man and his family were going through. Then he shared a plan with Amrit: he would contact Amrit’s teachers and the vice principal to let them know what was going on and keep them apprised as the situation developed. A few challenges were present: first semester final exams were just a few weeks away and Amrit, a Grade 12 student, was hoping to upgrade his marks moving into the home stretch of the semester. However, with the prospect of frequent hospital visits and a caregiving role in his father’s health plan, school work was going to have to be shelved. The counsellor communicated this with the teachers and the vice principal. They collaborated and decided to excuse Amrit from school work (including exams) for the balance of the semester. He would receive his term mark for his final grade in all his courses.
Sadly, Amrit’s father passed away and a new plan was put in place for semester two of his graduating year. The guidance counsellor was the go-to person for Amrit to check in with and the social worker promised to see the young man once a week to make sure he was doing alright. The teachers were very understanding and communicated any concerns with the guidance counsellor and Amrit’s mother. Once again, this young man overcame the adversity life handed him and made it to graduation despite a prolonged absence while dealing with his father’s illness and passing.
Mental health crisis
Daniella had been dealing with anxiety, depression and substance addiction since she was 14. Now in grade 11, Daniella experienced a psychotic break. She was seen acting suspiciously on a highway overpass by her home. A concerned passerby contacted 911 and the police were dispatched. Once they arrived, Daniella resisted their efforts to help her, assaulting one of the officers. Eventually she was brought under control and taken to the hospital where she was admitted to the youth psychiatric care unit. The staff indicated to her family that her stay would be lengthy as they attempted to come to terms with the mental health crisis that had brought Daniella to the bridge that day.
Daniella spent three weeks in the hospital. The youth unit had a teacher assigned to work with patients so that they didn’t fall too far behind in their school work. For the duration of Daniella’s stay, the teacher at the hospital was in almost daily contact with the guidance counsellor who communicated vital information to the teachers, the vice principal and the school Child Youth Worker (who had a pre-existing therapeutic relationship with Daniella). By the time she was discharged, Daniella was up-to-date on her assignments – thanks in large part to the coordination of the hospital and school team. A meeting was arranged involving the guidance counsellor, child youth worker and vice principal, Daniella and her parents to make the transition back to school a smooth one. Those assembled decided that it would be best if Daniella could be permitted to come to the Student Services office whenever she felt she needed support. She would check in with the Child Youth Worker or the guidance counsellor and, if the day was really not going well, her parents would be notified and she would head home.
Daniella stumbled through the rest of the school year. While she did utilize the support of school staff, she often skipped her classes and her school work suffered. The lines of communication between the family and the school were maintained with a number of “fresh starts” and new plans made to help Daniella. It wasn’t until the start of Grade 12 that Daniella got back on track. While her attendance was still spotty, she was able to pass her courses and get on track to graduate.
Priorities and best practices
There are two priorities that need to be considered when a student returns after an extended absence:
- The well-being of the student
- The creation of a team (with a clear team leader who the student trusts) to take responsibility for the student’s transition back to school
All three stories illustrate the presence of a team leader, the formation of a team and the student’s well-being as a primary focus.
In the end, all plans have a chance of working if the team keeps a few best practices in mind.
Communication – the team leader must establish a line of communication between the school, the student, the family and any involved outside agencies (like a hospital). Communication is the key component for the entire process if a smooth transition back to school is going to work.
Planning – all stakeholders need to collaborate to come up with a plan to make the student’s transition back to school as seamless as possible.
Reintegration – the plan is implemented with the team leader monitoring progress from the start.
Follow up – the team leader needs to follow up to make sure that the plan is working. If it isn’t, revisions need to be made so that the transition works and the student is effectively welcomed back into the school community.
Flexibility – surrounding the entire process is a spirit of flexibility and a willingness to enhance what’s working and shelve what’s not working. Most schools don’t have a “protocol” for reintegration of students after an extended absence because no two situations are the same. Instead, each case is treated in a professional and flexible manner to make sure the student’s well-being remains a priority.
By: Sean Dolan